We continued on down the bumpy Costa Rican roads, and everyone seemed to be managing well. Twenty kilometers from transition, we passed a member of the french team lying on the side of the road, his teammates tending to him.
“He looks like where I was a couple hours ago,” Brent said.
We paused briefly to make sure he was okay before pedaling on, not realizing that they had already used their emergency phone to call the race directors for transport out.
At 4:30 PM, we pulled into the TA and got down to business. We broke down our bikes, rinsed off, changed our clothes, and downed our first real food of the race.
Finally, it was time to take advantage of our fast-on-our-feetness. The 65-kilometer trek would take us up and over a 9,000 foot peak through the dense jungle. Race directors had estimated the section to take 14-24 hours. Given our condition, we thought we were looking at 20 hours on our feet. We learned later that the world champions made it in 19 hours.
We pulled out of the TA and sped up the road toward the trailhead, only to be waylaid for an hour as we figured out what to do with two broken headlamps. Several stops and one duracel flashlight later, we were back on track.
It was 4 kilometers to the trailhead and another 2-3 to the first river crossing and the beginning of the sharp ascent.
Night sets early in Costa Rica, and by the time we reached the water it was well past dark. We had been told that the river may be impassible, and that if we couldn’t cross on foot, we were to use the cable car above to pull ourselves over.
The river didn’t seem deep – up to our waists at most – but it was moving fast over the slick rocks. And the cable car? An unmanned seat hanging from a wire with a long pull cord attached.
As we paused to consider our options, a team that we’d passed in transition came barreling through. Their navigator was a bear of a man, easily the size of two members of our team put together, and their captain was the most seasoned racer in the field, having competed in some of the sport’s earliest and most rigorous events. We watched them wade across and quickly decided to follow suit.
The same crossing eleven hours later, in the light of day
From there, the only way forward was up. We had roughly 2,700 meters to climb over the next 10 kilometers, and we would be doing it all in ankle-deep mud.
We passed the team that had passed us in the river crossing and pushed forward. For the next few hours we made steady progress on the narrow trail, listening for the sounds of the waterfall that would bring us to the first checkpoint.
We had thought that with night and elevation would come cooler temperatures, but we were all dripping as we climbed higher and higher. We tried to continue eating and drinking, but both were becoming increasingly challenging, especially once we refilled our bladders from a muddy trickle of water and purified with iodine.
Around 10 PM, Brent told us that he needed to pause. He was tired, struggling to keep himself awake and make forward progress. Tiredness, of course, is relative 40 hours into a race, but he’s done enough to know that this wasn’t normal second-night fatigue.
We deliberated on the side of the trail for a few minutes and then decided to pull out our bug nets and settle in for an hour’s sleep. The rest of my teammates seemed to crash easily, but I drifted in and out of consciousness, chilled from sweat and recalling the snakes that we’d been warned about over the weekend briefing.
Finally, Bruce’s alarm went off and we started to ready our gear to continue on.
Brent rolled over and began to pack up the bug net. And promptly threw up.
We started up the trail slowly, and he threw up again. And then again.
We paused. We considered our options. I volunteered that it didn’t seem safe to continue on, with 2,000 meters yet to climb before we got out of the jungle and then another 30+ miles to the next transition. The others agreed. There didn’t seem to be any other options.
We turned around and slowly retraced our steps.
We made it back to the river crossing just as daylight broke. We were all feeling pretty battered by that point. Brent hadn’t been able to hold anything down through the night. Ali and I estimated that we’d each eaten roughly 500 calories over the 11 hours since we’d left the TA.
The only thing that seemed to have held up was our feet.
After a night of trekking through thick mud up and down narrow trails, there wasn’t a blister among us. Turns out Brent was right – our Thorlo socks had served us well.
Pruny, but blister-free!
We trekked out to the road and hitched a ride the 4 kilometers back to the last transition in a hotel parking lot. By that point the race organization was long gone, but hotel staff gave us a phone number and made the call.
An hour later, we were transported to the next TA, on the sunny banks of the Pacuare River, where we sat for five hours. Ultimately, we left with the french team we’d passed during the final bike leg and headed to the finish line lodge – two days before our anticipated arrival.
There was still talk of continuing on – by that point only six teams were still on the full course, the rest having skipped one section or another and been transported to the next TA – but it was clear that we wouldn’t be able to keep moving as a four.
We still don’t know exactly what happened to Brent. EMT advice and internet research suggests a combination of heat exhaustion and overhydration resulting in hyponatremia. Everyone agreed there was nothing he could have done differently. It was three days before he truly recovered.
On Friday morning, Bruce, Ali, and I caught a ride with race staff to one of the final TA’s and completed a short stretch of a later trekking leg, 16 kilometers along the Caribbean Coast.
No turtle sightings, but lots of sea turtle tracks
Monkeys in the trees - they threw figs at us as we passed below
It was a nice distraction from feeling trapped at the finish line. We spent the rest of the afternoon watching teams come in, and the next day traveling back to San Jose and Toyota City for the awards ceremony.
We awoke Sunday morning and hit the road, ready to leave the race behind and play tourist for a few days.
Inside a waterfall at the thermal pools
Trekking up a neighboring volcano...
...and swimming in the lake-filled crater.
Not a bad way to end the trip